Although Horrible Bosses was no comedic masterpiece, it had its moments. Most revolved around its put upon worker drones’ spluttering frustration at how freely their sadistic superiors abused authority. The movie was efficient: plans were hatched, plans went awry, and in the end our plucky protagonists scraped through to survive like others before them. We felt they were in the right because their anger was familiar and because they offered a wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy against very bad bosses.
By contrast, the sequel scraps any plot points that might derive from its title. Tired of working for other people, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudekis), and Dale (Charlie Day) have now gone into business for themselves, marketing a SkyMall-esque contraption known as the Shower Buddy. Businessman Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz) expresses interest in it for his catalog, and despite having no manufacturing experience, the three start their own factory. No surprise, they soon learn that Bert isn’t playing fair: they’re a half million dollars in hock and their newborn company is dead on the side of the road.
Meanwhile, Bert and his preening son Rex (Chris Pine) gloat over their scam and plan to steal the Shower Buddy like a proper pair of new millennium capitalists. Bert even gets off a couple lines that sound like they could have come from Thomas Piketty’s Capital. Mocking the heroes’ professed belief in hard work and ingenuity, he scoffs, “The only thing that creates wealth is wealth.” Translation: iIt’s a rigged game, suckers.
But the movie’s not very interested in theories of modern capitalism. Instead, it assembles a loose series of bits, many at least partially improvised and only one or two suggesting a plot that includes a failed kidnapping and ransom. But this abandonment of conventional structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film might be understood as crafting Nick, Dale, and Kurt out of the stars’ already well honed personae, then putting them together to see what might happen. Bateman plays another of his patented deadpan worriers, mouth set in a perma-frown while he watches Kurt and Dale spray kerosene and toss lit matches everywhere they can. For brief moments, Nick seems almost to look ahead, trying to plot a course out of the status quo: “Ourselves is a dumpster fire,” he observes.
Per formula, the inexorable troublemakers played by Sudeikis and Day resist change. Sudeikis’ style resembles that of a charming carnival huckster, while Day’s is that of a basement-dwelling borderline psychopath (a straight redo of his character from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Everything about Dale and Kurt plotting together screams, “Bad Idea”.
And yet the three dudes appear to have a good time of it. Again and again, the characters proclaim ever grander variations on their revenge plot even as they engage in noisy squabbles. Also repeatedly, the actors deliver to expectations, Bateman’s agonized sighs set against Sudeikis and Day’s motor-mouthing, a combination producing some of the most reliable and low-wattage screen comedy since Vince Vaughn decided to stop making funny movies. Director Sean Anders has enough confidence in his cast’s abilities to leave them alone without the desperate tinkering and stunt casting that afflicts so many comedy sequels (read: no Kevin Hart cameo).
In fact, problems arise just about anytime another character comes on the scene. Brief appearances by Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx do what they’re supposed to do, that is, highlight the trio’s shortcomings as criminals, not to mention competent adults (as American film comedies still draw inspiration from The Hangover‘s arrested adolescents). Pine does his best to play along with Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day, but he dials up the volume when underplaying is key to the three original players’ success. Jennifer Anniston could never be accused of underplaying nymphomaniac dentist Dr. Harris. Returning from the first film, here again, the character makes little sense. “You guys got a lot of stuff sticking out and I’ve got a lot of holes,” she announces.
Such painful moments aside, Horrible Bosses 2 does provide for some laughs, a rarity for any comedy sequel, but they’re arbitrary. The movie may as well have been called Bateman-Sudeikis-Day Funny Movie, With Guest Stars and Occasional Car Chase.